The choices we make about energy, the environment and climate will be limited by The Three Chinas.
The Real China
1. One of the Chinas is very real and familiar. It has a population of 1.4 billion.
2. China is developing quickly, trying to do in 50 years what America did in 100. As a result, they have doubled their energy use since 2000, becoming the largest energy user in the world.
3. China’s energy use may well double again by 2020. (The figures in the report did not match reality, but their estimate of 7.5% annual growth looks fairly okay).
4. Coal currently provides 70% of China’s energy. That may drop to 65% by 2020. It may not.
5. If China doubles its energy use (to 200 quads) and 65% of it comes from coal, that will be 130 quadrillion BTUs generated from burning coal, in China, in 2020.
6. China’s coal plants are much dirtier than those used in the developed world.
The Second China
This very real China will be replicated by the natural growth of the human population to 8.5 billion by 2035, and 9.1 billion at its peak later this century. That’s more than the entire population of China. As many of them will actually be born in China, and many more will form part of our third ‘imaginary’ China, it is appropriate to limit the Second China to the size of the real one.
7. Most of these new humans will be born into developing countries.
8. But these developing countries are, in fact, developing now. Their energy use is increasing dramatically–if not as dramatically as China’s. The Second China will spring forth from countries whose energy use is growing by 3.3% per year.
9. And although their use of coal is not as intense as China’s, their reliance on fossil fuels is fairly close (Fig. 2)
The Third China
While China is developing quickly, so is the rest of the developing world. As countries develop, the people living in them get richer. They buy cars, appliances, computers, and begin to use more energy. Again, to avoid double counting (China will be one of the countries talked about, and many of the new middle class will consist of people not yet born), it is correct to think of this as about the size of the current China.
10. Two billion people may join the middle class by 2030.
11. By 2050, countries which are now developing quickly will be called ‘middle-income’ and may account for 60% of GDP.
12. Goldman Sachs believes that China’s per capita income will be $50,000 in 2050 (p.5), and that their per capita GDP will be $70,000. But they also project that Turkey and Mexico will have higher incomes per capita, and that Brazil will almost match China.
13. Mexico currently consumes 69 million BTUs per person per year (Table 1.8). Their average income is $14,000. If their incomes triple, so will their energy usage. The same is true for Indonesia, Turkey, the Philippines, China, India and more.
I have written here frequently that I believe current estimates of future energy consumption are flawed. I hope the information provided above shows why. As I have written before, extending current consumption and development trends over a short period of time shows a doubling and perhaps a tripling of energy use over the medium term. That could see global demand for energy reaching 2,000 quads per year by 2035.
I do not know what the sensitivity of the atmosphere is to a doubling of concentrations of CO2 is, and despite pronouncements from partisans on either side of that argument, I don’t think anybody else knows, either.
I do not know what cycles of earth, moon, sun and stars will combine to push or pull global temperatures one way or another, and despite pronouncements from partisans on either side, I don’t think anybody else knows, either.
Recent human history makes it fairly easy to contemplate economic growth and energy usage for the very near future. It is an order of magnitude easier than trying to analyse the factors that influence the climate.
We do not have to guess about the effects of massive coal consumption by developing countries–we have our own history to guide us, from London in 1952 to Manchester a century before, from burning rivers in Ohio to dead lakes nearby.
Commenters to my recent pieces asked why I characterise our situation as an energy crisis. I have tried to provide an answer here. I’m happy to discuss this with any and all. Because I think this is a conversation we can have without referring to magical numbers and thinking, pixie dust or moonbeams.
I personally think that this level of intense development will indeed have an effect on our climate, due not only to CO2, but also deforestation, aquifer depletion and other factors described ably by Roger Pielke Sr. But I don’t know how much and I don’t know what percentages to assign to each.
So let’s talk about energy and why what is described above signals a crisis–or not.